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'Thursday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in Broncos-Browns

Denver Broncos
2021 · 3-3-0
Cleveland Browns
2021 · 3-3-0

8:20 p.m. ET (NFL Network, FOX, Amazon) | FirstEnergy Stadium

Call this one the Band-Aid Battle, as the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns both have bleeding that needs to be stopped. Denver opened the season 3-0, albeit against three teams that began a combined 0-9, and have since nosedived to 3-3 against a schedule that eventually stiffened. The defense that was supposed to anchor this team just allowed a season-high 34 points to the Raiders. The Broncos, in a word, are reeling. Onto Cleveland’s failing brakes: an already injury-riddled team gave its medical staff another busy afternoon in Sunday’s loss to Arizona, leaving the Browns with a short week to assemble patchwork availability. Cleveland opened the season 3-1, only to have its defense shredded the last two weeks to join Denver among the NFL's seven 3-3 teams.

Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Browns play host to the Broncos:

  1. The Case for Keenum. Expectations should not be high for Browns quarterback Case Keenum’s first start since 2019. Spelling Baker Mayfield, who will see a streak of 51 starts snapped due to a left shoulder injury, Keenum will be challenged by a short week of preparation, compounded by the impact of injuries elsewhere along the Browns offense. Aside from other lineup question marks noted below, he could be without wide receiver Odell Beckham (shoulder), while Jarvis Landry hopes to return from injury for his first action since Week 2. Beckham offiically is questionable for Thursday's game. Keenum is a savvy veteran, but to navigate a Browns win, he’ll have to be that and more. Nick Mullens presumably will be activated from the practice squad for backup duty.
  2. Bridgewater needs turnaround. As effective as Broncos signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater was in Denver’s 3-0 start, he’s been less so in three losses since. He had completed just 7 of 16 passes when he was removed from a Week 4 loss to Baltimore due to a concussion, and in two losses since, he’s thrown four interceptions and taken seven sacks. With Cleveland’s defense struggling of late, this could be a nice opportunity for a Bridgewater rebound, but the matchup has no precedent -- in 55 career starts, this will be Bridgewater’s first against the Browns. Injured wideout Jerry Jeudy (ankle) can’t return fast enough and would be a welcomed additional target for Bridgewater. Jeudy has been designated for return from injured reserve, but coach Vic Fangio hasn’t committed to a return date for him.
  3. Is it Miller Time? Regardless of what Cleveland presents at offensive tackle to Broncos star pass rusher Von Miller, the matchup will bear watching. Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills (ankle) hasn’t played since Week 4, right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) hasn’t played since Week 5, and both are questionable to play. Whether he faces hobbled or healthy starters, or backups James Hudson and Blake Hance, Miller boldly predicted a big prime-time performance for himself. After being held sackless in his last two games, he’s clearly hungry. It would behoove the Browns to enlist some help from tight ends and running backs to help keep the three-time All-Pro out of the pocket.
  4. New faces in Cleveland backfield. For this week, at least, the Browns' rotation at running back has gone from one of the NFL’s most feared tandems (Nick ChubbKareem Hunt) to a trio of backs who haven’t combined for a career NFL start. Into the fire go D’Ernest Johnson, who has three carries on the year, rookie Demetric Felton, who has none, and John Kelly, who’s been elevated from the practice squad and hasn’t played since wearing a Rams helmet in 2019. That’s an awfully green backfield, but a golden opportunity for three young backs who wouldn’t otherwise carve out a role behind a healthy Chubb-Hunt combo. With Chubb presumably returning to action before the IR-bound Hunt, it’s also an audition for Chubb’s short-term backup.

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